Updated: Mar 30
Network television series exist in a rough landscape; a seemingly perfect storm needs to happen for a show to have any form of longevity. A show needs a network with a dedicated audience that aligns itself with the themes and narrative of the program. For example, Bryan Fuller’s exquisite adaptation of the Hannibal Lector lore, Hannibal, aired on NBC for three seasons, and for each of those seasons it was under the cancellation gun. Turned out the Venn Diagram of NBC viewers and cannibal food porn lovers couldn’t have been farther apart. A series needs viewers, consistent eyes that will return to a show week after week. Stories of critically acclaimed shows that just couldn’t bring in the ratings are a tale as old as television itself. The show needs to air at a time when people can watch it, and hopefully it’s not competing with any other shows on any other networks. If you look at a list of shows that aired on what’s called the “Friday Night Death Slot” (or FNDS), it’s like a graveyard of “Oh yeah, I remember that one.” If these circumstances don’t align, the show will die, get cancelled and the DVD’s director commentaries will be the only sequel you’re going to get.
However, there are many cases of shows being brought back from the dead. Stellar DVD sales leading to network executives using voodoo magic to bring shows back from the grave. Sometimes fans go to extreme lengths to get a chance to see their favorite characters again. Rights will change distribution hands, and in cases like Ren and Stimpy, your favorite childhood characters can say "fuck" now. Thanks SPIKE TV. David Lynch’s Twin Peaks came back for a cathartic final season because of fan outcry and the show’s cult status. Netflix picked up Arrested Development after seeing the numbers of how many viewers watched the previous three seasons on their site. Within each of these examples success varies, but there’s one special example that comes to mind when talking about revitalizing good television, a show that ended too soon but came back for the perfect ending. I’m talking about Joss Whedon’s famed western space drama, Firefly, and its subsequent climatic cinematic outing: Serenity.
Firefly aired on FOX’s very own "FNDS" back in 2002, and that wasn’t the only problem facing the show. Executives weren’t fans of the interracial marriage of characters Wash (Alan Tudyk) and Zoe (Gina Torress) from the beginning; luckily, Whedon wouldn’t budge on that front. The show was also aired out of order. And despite Firefly being a sort of episodic adventure, that first episode is the Pilot for a reason, with the larger dramatic arcs of the characters flowing linearly. Commercials for the series pitched it as a wonky comedy, instead of a drama. With marketing not aligning with the show’s subject matter, executives not liking the show from the start, and airing the show completely out of order, Firefly was unsurprisingly cancelled after its first season, a fourteen-episode run, of which only eleven were even aired. Fans wouldn’t stand for this. Much like the show’s "Browncoats" – independents attempting to exist out of the show’s large governmental rule (The Alliance) – fans took it upon themselves to raise the awareness of the series. The DVD sales were strong, leading Universal Studios to produce the 2005 film, Serenity, directed by series creator, Joss Whedon. The film reunited the show’s cast and set out to give fans what they wanted. The film just barely grossed back its own budget and fiscally it was considered a flop. At the end of the day, fans got what they wanted: one last episode of their favorite space western. So, if a movie is made for a niche audience and sets out to give their fans the ending they always wanted, and succeeds with mostly positive reactions, does this make it the perfect ending?
Before we continue, nothing is perfect, and even something an audience loves through and through, or that a critic gives a 10/10, doesn’t mean that some aspects of it couldn’t be critiqued critically, or, because of our own influences and biases, be made better. Art is subjective; we all bring our own separate opinions to our entertainment. This being said, when something is designed and catered to a specific audience, no matter how little money it makes, or critically panned it could be, if that diehard audience loves it, then what does that make the film? I must now reveal that my spaceship landed late to the terraformed planet.
Only about a week ago did I finally decide to watch Firefly, which I did in two(ish) days. I quickly fell in love with the series. The show had the Joss Whedon "cheese" that so delightfully flowed through each of the character’s lines of dialogue. The show felt both dated and modern in good ways. It obviously had aged since 2002, but the plight of these characters felt as modern as ever. Budding romances between Mal and Inara kept me on the edge of my seat every episode yelling, “JUST KISS ALREADY!” (Spoiler: they never do). Wondering if Jayne was actually going to betray the crew kept me love/hating him. And the mystery of the two siblings, Simon and River Tam, kept me intrigued until the series’ conclusion. I love sci-fi, and it’s not every day that you get a quality sci-fi television show like this. Firefly isn’t grim and serious, and it isn’t so self aware that you can’t take the plot seriously. A trapping of the science fiction genre is that sometimes its plots are far too concerned with the world in which the story takes place, and not with its characters. Firefly is the exception, the world of the show is complex but the pitch is simple:
“The Earth got used up, so we terraformed a whole new galaxy of Earths, some rich and flush with new technologies, some not so much.”
That’s really all you need to know, the show is far more concerned with the drama and interactions of its characters on the Firefly class vessel. Some of these people are dangerous, all of these people come from different walks of life, but they’re here, as a family, and all the stronger for it. It’s seeing these characters speak to one another that kept me on the edge of my seat, not so much the state of this series’ galaxy.
I watched Serenity immediately upon finishing the show, and during its opening scene, finally seeing how Simon breaks River from Alliance capture; I was smiling ear to ear. As a fan of the show (even a very new fan) I felt the film gave me everything I wanted. The television series leaned into the more Western elements of its world, most likely due to the budget, but the movie finally gave us some bigger Sci-fi set pieces that looked great for the time. The film also had high stakes and character deaths that we didn’t see coming (or want, dammit). It gave us conclusions to character arcs that are meaningful, and all of our favorite space folk had their day in the film. I can’t imagine wanting anything else in that movie; it satisfied every desire I had as a fan and gave me things I didn’t even know I wanted.
Serenity feels like the end of only a chapter, despite being the end of the series. I don’t think we’ll ever see the crew return to any screen, which of course is a bummer, but the movie is left open ended in the best way. We’ve received a few graphic novels over the years, and it was recently announced that we would be getting two different novels that will be canon in the Firefly universe, edited by Joss Whedon himself. Of course this isn’t as amazing as a big screen return, but if the fans keep the spirit of Firefly alive, like Star Wars, the narrative will eventually belong to them. Star Wars' recent return is built from the ground up on fandom. JJ Abrams, Rian Johnson, Kathleen Kennedy, and everyone else involved in these films, grew up loving Star Wars movies, and now they get to make them. Firefly’s fandom isn’t even in the same stratosphere as that galaxy far, far away, but who knows, maybe in twenty years the right person will come along, acquire the rights and bring us the return or reboot we didn’t know we wanted. Joss Whedon’s pitch for Firefly was this:
“Nine people looking into the blackness of space and seeing nine different things.”
The fans of Firefly look into the emptiness of space and eventually will pave their own way through the galaxy, and I’m excited for the stories they may one day tell.
Co-Head of Podcasting
Robert has a degree in Screenwriting and Playwriting and works in multiple genres. He's just your typical man-child who enjoys most things nerd culture. You can follow him on Twitter @RoBaeBae